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US and Europe differ on fiscal policy 2010-May-30 at 06:22 PDT

Posted by Scott Arbeit in Blog.
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Geithner in Europe: US and EU Oceans Apart on Fiscal Policy, 27-May-2010

Europe is eager to begin paying down sovereign debt. The US wants to see Germany and France continue stimulus measures. With Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in Germany on Thursday, the trans-Atlantic differences in fiscal policy have become difficult to ignore.

But the camaraderie displayed on Thursday belied some recent tension in the trans-Atlantic relationship. For one, the US has not been impressed with Germany’s recent decision to ban certain kinds of naked short selling, considering it an unhelpful bit of unilateralism.

On a more fundamental level, however, Washington is concerned that, should Europe overreach in its rush to cut government spending, it could endanger the fragile economic recovery that has taken hold on the Continent and around the globe. In particular, the US would like to see countries like Germany and France continue efforts to stimulate their economies.

As I’ve mentioned before, I wholeheartedly support the move by the Obama Administration to pursue an international agreement on financial industry regulation and reform.  Financial regulation, however, is not fiscal policy, and on fiscal policy we’re seeing some sharp differences between the US and the EU right now.

To some extent, I’m not surprised by this.  The shock just felt in Greece, and therefore in the rest of Europe, has led many European leaders to draw the simple and obvious conclusion: debt and deficits are bad, and lead to bad outcomes.  Germany is simply saying to Europe: we’re the most stable economy here, we can borrow currency at incredibly favorable rates, and even we’re not interested in debt and deficits anymore.

The sad fact is that the United States is still far more comfortable with deficits and debt than Europe is likely to be over the next decade or so.  With that said, I appreciate the position that the Obama Administration – including Timothy Geithner, Paul Volcker, and Christina Romer – are taking: without fiscal stimulus, the entire world economy would have sunk, and it’s just too early to end that right now.

I have no impression whatsoever that the Obama Administration is in favor of endless high government spending; rather, I have the opposite feeling: that they’d love to cut spending as soon as they can, and as much as Congress will let them (and don’t forget, Congress makes the budget, not the President).  Everyone in the Administration has made that clear at every opportunity.  The important question remains: when is the right time to shift fiscal policy from stimulus to spending cuts?

There is much legitimate debate on this question.  Unfortunately, the alleged science of economics brings us answers on both sides of the question, and so we’re left with the artistic choices made by various governments.  Europe has one answer now; America has another.  I believe that if the United States just went through a debt scare like Europe just did, that we’d be highly motivated in the short-term to cut spending as well.  We haven’t – in fact, we’ve experienced a resurgence in the perception that the dollar is the most secure currency in the world – and so we continue to favor stimulus.

We all know that we’ll get to cutting the deficit, and paying down our debt, at some point… I’d rather it be sooner, because we need to start having the public debates about spending that will lead to a generational transformation in Congress.

And, of course, we need Congressional term limits. Desperately.

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A flatland look at the rift between Obama and Wall St. 2010-May-25 at 12:36 PDT

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Obama Is From Mars, Wall Street Is From Venus, by John Heilemann, 22-May-2010

The speed and severity of the swing from enchantment to enmity would be difficult to overstate. When Obama was sworn into office, Democrats on Wall Street rejoiced at the ascension of a president in whom they saw many qualities to admire: brains, composure, bi-partisan instincts, an aversion to class-based combat. And many Wall Street Republicans—after witnessing the horror show that constituted John McCain’s response to the financial crisis—quietly admitted relief that the other guy had prevailed.

Today, it’s hard to find anyone on Wall Street who doesn’t speak of Obama as if he were an unholy hybrid of Bernie Sanders and Eldridge Cleaver. One night not long ago, over dinner with ten executives in the finance industry, I heard the president described as “hostile to business,” “anti-wealth,” and “anti-capitalism”; as a “redistributionist,” a “vilifier,” and a “thug.” A few days later, I recounted this experience to the same Wall Street CEO who’d called the Volcker Rule a testicular blow, and mentioned I’d been told that one of the most prominent megabank chiefs, who once boasted to friends of voting for Obama, now refers to him privately as a “Chicago mob guy.” Do all your brethren feel this way? I asked. “Oh, not everybody—just most of them,” he replied. “Jamie [Dimon]? Lloyd [Blankfein]? They might not say Obama’s a socialist, but they come pretty close.”

For Obama, Wall Street’s cluelessness is a source of intense frustration—“He’s like, ‘What the fuck, you guys?’ ” says a White House official—and its ire toward him one of the cruelest paradoxes of his presidency. Rather than bowing to bailout rage or indulging the yearning for what Geithner calls “Old Testament justice,” Obama believes, justifiably, that he has taken a moderate approach to dealing with the financial system. On arriving in office, he chose to shore up the banks, not nationalize them. The regulations he has advocated aren’t punitive or radical. Despite the occasional burst of opprobrium, his stance has been one he summed up pithily at a meeting with the heads of the largest banks: “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”

This is a solid long piece that tries to find a way to categorize the viewpoints as best as possible, while pointing out the reasonable middle ground fairly often.

From the left: “Why aren’t you putting the screws to Wall St.?”

From the right: “Anything you do that even seems to slow down anything that Wall St. does is completely anti-business.”

From the center: “Main Street is mad at the president because he’s too close to Wall Street, and Wall Street is mad at him because he’s too populist,” Altman says. “Therefore, almost by definition, he’s in the right place.”

From an Integral point-of-view, of course, we see Orange/Achiever reacting to Yellow/Strategist as if it were Green/Individualist… which is to be expected.  And we also see Green/Individualist reacting to this instance of Yellow/Strategist as if it were caving in to Orange/Achiever… which is to be expected.

Sigh.

Unfortunately, the Tea Partiers only view Obama through the lens of some actions that he was basically forced to take in the first few months of his administration to, oh, I don’t know, SAVE THE ENTIRE WORLD ECONOMY!  People have conveniently forgotten how bad things were at the end of 2008, and how gross the situation was that President Bush left for President Obama.

I mean, if you want to see the Orange/Achiever mindset spelled out, here it is [my italics]:

“They’re not accustomed to being engaged in politics this way,” says a private-equity investor. “Their skin isn’t toughened. They actually take [the attacks by Obama] personally. This is a profession with a lot of smart people, but who aren’t necessarily terribly introspective. They think they actually deserve to make all this money. So any attack on their livelihood is, ahem, unpleasant.”

There is no reform of Wall St. that they’ll be happy with.  Anything that takes away an opportunity to achieve short-term profits is anathema.  And, again, that’s to be expected.  But we still have to manage it from a later level of development.

I’d suggest that if you really think Obama wanted to do trillions of dollars of bailout that it’s your projection onto him.  He didn’t like it, but he didn’t have a choice, as he’s spelled out many times in many speeches, including the most recent State Of The Union.  If you were in that hot seat in the Oval Office, and were told, “Either we do this, or the world economy goes into Depression” by both conservative and liberal advisors… you’d do it too, no matter what.

Imagine a population with, say, 10% at Integral, meaning Yellow/Strategist or later, and 10% of Congress there, too.  We’d easily have the votes to reform Wall St. in a reasonable way that lets Orange/Achiever do its thing within the limits of rational regulation… which is what the Obama Administration has been supporting all along, anyway.  If you look at the final Senate bill, it’s pretty much in line with what the Administration has been supporting, without going all that far in terms of breaking up big banks.  We might see that sort of move if another one goes bad, but right now we’re taking a reasonable step forward… one that will impact the profitability of large Wall St. institutions only in areas where their activities just almost screwed the entire population of Earth.

We’re not far from getting that 10% – maybe a decade – and it gets even easier at 20%.  Hang in there….